Simple steps to stay private online

Simple steps to stay private online

Visitors to virtually every major website are tracked, but you can limit the snooping.

Visitors to almost every major website are tracked online, a Journal investigation has found. But there are ways to limit the snooping. Web browsing activity is tracked by use of “cookies,” “beacons” and “Flash cookies,” small computer files or software programs installed on a user’s computer by the Web pages that are visited. Some are useful. But a subset (“third party” cookies and beacons) are used by companies to track users from site to site and build a database of their online activities.

Major browsers including Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome and Safari, have privacy features. To have the most privacy options, upgrade to the latest version of the browser you use.

Check and Delete Cookies: All popular browsers let users view and delete cookies installed on their computer. Methods vary by browser.

For instance on Internet Explorer 8 (the most widely used browser), go to the “Tools” menu, pull down to “Internet Options” and under the “General” tab there are options for deleting some or all cookies. There might be hundreds, so deleting all might be easiest. But the next time you visit a favorite site, you may need to retype passwords or other login data previously stored automatically by one of those cookies.

Adjust Browser Settings: Once you’ve deleted cookies, you can limit the installation of new ones. Major browsers let you accept some cookies and block others. To maintain logins and settings for sites you visit regularly, but limit tracking, block “third-party” cookies. Safari automatically does this; other browsers must be set manually.

There are downsides to blocking all cookies. If you frequent sites that require logins, you will have to log in each time you visit.

Internet Explorer lets you set rules for blocking cookies based on the policies of the cookie-placer. One option blocks cookies that don’t include a privacy policy; another blocks cookies that can save your contact information without your approval. The control is under “Tools/Internet Options/Privacy.”

No major browsers let you track or block beacons without installing extra software known as “plug-ins,” as described under advanced steps.

Turn On “Private” Browsing: All major browsers offer a “private browsing” mode to limit cookies. Chrome calls it “Incognito.” Internet Explorer calls it “InPrivate Browsing,” but this option is available only in the latest version, IE8.

Private browsing doesn’t block cookies. It deletes cookies each time you close the browser or turn off private browsing, effectively hiding your history.

Private browsing isn’t selective. It deletes all cookies, whether useful or not. So you might want to use private browsing selectively, such as when looking at health-related information.

Monitor “Flash Cookies”: Another kind of cookie uses Adobe Systems Inc.’s popular Flash program to save information on your computer. Flash is the most common way to show video online. As with regular cookies, Flash cookies can be useful for remembering preferences, such as volume settings for videos. But marketers also can use Flash cookies to track what you do online.

To identify the Flash cookies on your computer and adjust your settings, you need to go to an Adobe website. You can delete Flash cookies stored on your computer and specify whether you want to accept future third-party Flash cookies.

The downside of blocking third-party Flash cookies: Some sites won’t let you watch videos or other content.

Advanced Steps

Install Privacy “Plug-ins”: Small programs called “add-ons” or “plug-ins” can help maintain privacy. Some let you monitor trackers that can’t be seen through the browser; others allow you to delete cookies on a regular schedule.

Not all browsers can use all plug-ins. And some plug-ins can be tricky to set up. With those caveats, some plug-ins may be worth a look:

Abine: Developed by a Cambridge, Mass., start-up of the same name, it attempts to control several types of trackers. Once installed, the program will warn you when a site is placing cookies or Flash cookies on your machine. You can also see and block a third type of tracker called a Web “beacon” (sometimes called a “bug”). This is an invisible object embedded in a page that can interact with cookies. It’s available only in “test” versions, so this is only for people who don’t mind experimenting a bit with software.

Better Privacy: This plug-in offers control over Flash cookies. It doesn’t block them, but lets you set rules for deleting them—a distinction that can be helpful if you frequent sites that require you to use third-party Flash cookies to see their content.

Ghostery: Available at ghostery.com, it helps control beacons. It alerts you when there’s a beacon on a page you’re viewing, tells you who placed it and details the company’s privacy policy. With Internet Explorer or Firefox, you can then block the beacon from capturing information on your computer. That feature isn’t available for Chrome.

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